The Manglish Dictionary – “Makan”

Here we are again friends. It is that magical time once more, where we pry into the looking glass, through the confounded fog of linguistics, to spy on the majestic, elusive beast that is Manglish, the frustrating half-language in which every Malaysian indulges. Previously, if you would recall, we looked at the notorious “Lah”, with which every sentence is generously upholstered. Today, we look at another word, not employed as often as “Lah”, but no less important. Today, we MAKAN!

Mamak, makan, SOLS
Mamak interior. Comic by Lat


This word isn’t some invented word of the creole, but of the Malay language, drawn into use within the creole because of the universality of the subject itself to Malaysians: to eat. When talking of this word, one is reminded of the legendary locales peppered around Malaysia. Places where relationships have been forged and broken, where ideas have been found and grappled with and expanded, where friendships have been sealed and made eternal; I am speaking of the fabled and grand, the incredible region within which hygiene is always in question, the primal and singular setting from which sprung the Malaysian nation: the Mamak.

Now, what is the Mamak? When employed, the name refers to a type of eatery very common in Malaysia, but the name is also used to describe the people from which this form of eatery originated. The Mamaks are ethnic Indian Muslims, and they are largely credited with developing the fast, rich-tasting fare that Malaysians have come to be defined by.

The Mamak is also the scattered smattering of greasy tables and chairs that spill into the street. The midnight shrine for the starving, work-exhausted pilgrim. They say that between the home and the workplace, there is a third place with which everyone frequents. Schultz saw this and founded Starbucks, and Starbucks experiences success not because it sells good coffee, but because it has become this third place to the American people. In the exact fashion, the third place of the Malaysian is the Mamak, and it is in this age old arena that the perfected use of “Makan” sees exercise.

Roti Canai: typical Mamak fare

“Makan” in Practice

The nice Mamak man walks by your rickety plastic table where you and your friends are seated on rickety plastic chairs. In customary Mamak man nonchalance, he looks at you and does not look at you at the same time. Here, he might just stare off into some far-flung distance, expecting you to understand that he is waiting to take your order. Or he might look you in the eye and ask softly: “Makan?” Or he might instead employ a hand gesture that serves to mean the same thing, where he brings the tips of all his fingers and his thumb together and brings it a little of the distance to his mouth like a frustrated Italian.

Thereafter, you make your order, and he bobs his head, and he comes back with “Makan”, and you “Makan”. This represents one of the everyday Malaysian scenes that demonstrate how “Makan” can be used to refer to physical food, to the act of eating, as well as a question, asking if one wanted anything to eat.

Certainly, while the Mamak serves as the place most suited to demonstrate the perfected and multifarious use of “Makan”, it is far from the only one. Malaysians on a whole employ the word “Makan” whenever and wherever there is a need to reference food, and it so happens that this occurs very often.

As is usual with these things, there is no recommended method to master the “Makan”. My advice to the foreigner would only be to listen hard when the Malaysian launches into his rapid delivery, and grasp blindly in the darkness until enlightenment dawns, and the puzzle piece of “Makan” fits immaculately in the Manglish mind map.


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